Informing Across Cultures

Chandiramathi stood awkwardly in the lounge of Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi, holding her eight-month-old baby. Her husband, Arun Reddy was talking on his smartphone, gesticulating wildly as he did so.  Mr. and Mrs. Reddy were on their way to Berlin. It was September 24th and a warm day even by Delhi’s standards. A German woman, who was seated, beckoned to Chandiramathi and pointed to the empty seat next to her. “You must be tired holding that baby,” she said. “Why don’t you sit down?”.  Chandiramathi sat down, murmuring that she was not used to standing up. Her father, a wealthy landowner, had arranged her marriage to Arun, a bright young software engineer working with a reputed IT company in Bangalore. Chandiramathi, a small‑town girl, had been awe-struck by Bangalore when she had first gone there with her husband. And now, just a year and a half after her marriage, her husband had been deputed to work on a live project with CH, an automobile company in Germany. “You are going to feel cold when you land in Germany,” said the German woman, pointing to the gold-tasseled chappals that Chandiramathi was wearing. “Everybody wears shoes in Germany at this time of the year.” Chandiramathi looked helplessly at her husband who was dressed in western attire, his feet ensconced in leather shoes.

 

As soon as they boarded the plane and took their seats, Arun opened his laptop and started working. “The project will be a breeze,” he had commented. “I know exactly what I have to do.” When Chandiramathi looked across the aisle, she found the same German woman she had met at the airport lounge, watching her every move. The German woman even suggested that Chandiramathi have wine with her dinner. Arun had quickly demurred stating, “My wife does not drink, and I only drink on the ground.” He had then proceeded to laugh loudly at his own joke. Just then, a flight attendant came to fetch the German woman as she had got an upgrade to business class. Before she got up, she asked Arun, “Didn’t your company give you an orientation to the German culture when they deputed you?” “No,” replied Arun. “And in any case, I will be in Germany for only eight months”.  “Eight months is a long time,” the German woman countered. “Even eight weeks can be a long time.”

 

At Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport. Arun and Chandiramathi felt quite overwhelmed. At the immigration counter, the official spoke in accented but impeccable English before uttering, “Ich wünschenIhnen einen angenehmen Aufenthalt”. “I am sorry, but I don’t speak German,” Arun responded politely. “But you could have learned a little before coming here to work for eight months,” rejoined the immigration official. “I can speak English though,” Arun observed. “Yes, but you are not in England. You are in Germany”. Suddenly, Arun wished he had attended the one-day workshop offered by Max Mueller Bhavan to familiarise Indians with German culture.

 

Arun went to work the next day feeling under the weather. When he had moved to Bangalore from Warangal, he had felt quite at home. He had liked the cosmopolitan ambience of Bangalore and took to the place like a duck to water. In Germany, he felt like an alien and knew that some Germans on the streets mistook him for a refugee, and looked through him as if he were invisible. He wished he was wearing smarter, more contemporary clothes, though he did wear with pride the Rolex watch gifted to him by his father-in-law. He perked up however when he started working at his workstation on the assignment given to him. At the end of the day, he went to a conference room to meet the five important personnel he would be required to interact with while in Germany. The meeting had been set up three weeks ago, while he was still in Bangalore. He was surprised to find that they had with them an evaluation of the work he had done that day.

 

“Your mastery over software engineering is commendable,” was the one comment articulated that made it worthwhile for him to be in Germany. This compliment was given to him in an unsmiling manner. The managers had observed that Arun had come to the conference room at 5.04 pm, when in fact, the meeting had been scheduled for 5.00 pm. “In Germany, we believe it is better to come 10 minutes early for a scheduled meeting, rather than risk being even a few minutes late,” one of the managers had observed. When Arun had introduced himself saying, “Please call me Arun,” the Germans had replied with “We like to be formal at our workplace in Germany. We will refer to you only as Mr. Reddy.”

 

When Arun went home that day, he found his wife looking frazzled. “Nobody seems to speak English in this apartment building,” she cried. “I tried to use the floor washing machine and found that all the directions in the instruction manual were written in German. An Indian-looking woman came into the laundry room, and I asked her which part of India she was from. She said in English that she was from Eritrea. When she started using the washing machine, I asked her if she could explain to me what she was doing. She replied that she had no time and that I should speak to the building manager. When I went to the building manager’s office I found that it was locked.” At this point, Arun intervened to say that the building manager only came when he had a matter to attend to. The initial contact with him had to be made by telephone. Chandiramathi went on to say that she thought herself very courageous because she had tried to go by bus to the downtown area. When she reached the bus shelter, she found it to be empty. She had then boarded the first bus which came that way. On the bus, all the passengers had looked at her in her salwar suit as if she was from outer space. When she got off at the next stop, she had given the driver 2 euros for the ride. He took the money and made some comment in German, which she sensed had been some sort of a stricture.

 

The next day, Arun went to work feeling unsure of himself.

 

Within minutes of his arrival at his workstation, a familiar-looking German woman presented herself to him. She smiled and said, “We met at New Delhi airport, you know”. Suddenly, Arun remembered who she was and, smiling back, said “Yes, of course. I am Reddy”.  The woman responded by saying, “That’s good, Herr Reddy. I am Frau Schmidt. We have started a new initiative in our company called ‘Informing Across Cultures’. So, I am your informer. This is an initiative designed to educate our contractual employees from other cultures about German culture. This initiative is my brainchild and responsibility. I am a cross-culture due diligence expert. It is my understanding that you are suffering from culture shock. So, every morning we will sit in my office for an hour, from 8.30am to 9.30am. During this period, you can ask me questions about German culture which you think will enable you to perform better. I, from my side, will provide you with some structured inputs.” Arun was torn between feeling relieved that he would now have someone who would help him adjust, and feeling inadequate because he needed to be helped. So, he did not say anything.

 

At Arun’s first meeting with Frau Schmidt, he was given a 30-page “Work Manual” to peruse. “I will read it tonight and familiarise myself completely with it,” he said enthusiastically. “No, please don’t do that,” Frau Schmidt said. “You are not expected to work after office hours unless you have been given a specific deadline to meet. In this culture, we work hard during office hours and separate our non-office lives from our office lives. People may live in the same apartment building and work in the same firm. But they do not form a carpool. They will drive themselves to work. Or a bicycle. Or take public transport.  I know you suggested to Herr Brandt yesterday that you have coffee together after work. And I know he declined your offer very courteously. Here, such a suggestion is unusual.” Arun was flabbergasted to hear this. In Bangalore, his close friends, to begin with, were all men he had met at work. How was he ever going to make friends here? As if guessing his thoughts, Frau Schmidt suggested that he take his wife to watch the street parade on Sunday.

 

Arun did his work meticulously. Nobody had complaints. He was pleased with his professional success. He was also gratified with the way he was fitting in at CH, Berlin, thanks to his informer Frau Schmidt. There were many work-related practices he was picking up which he could recommend to IT companies in Bangalore. He particularly admired the processes CH had in place to ensure accountability.

 

He was also interested in putting in place an orientation program for IT professionals who were deputed for assignments outside India. The effort of enabling prospective expatriates to adjust to culture shock should commence before leaving the home country. When he sounded out Frau Schmidt on this, she laughed him to scorn. “I have been to Bangalore three times,” she remarked. “Nobody I have met is a truly global citizen.  People from India like to come to Europe to sightsee and to shop. They have no appreciation for our culture, art, music, or literature. They are not cultured.” Arun could see that Frau Schmidt’s knowledge of English did not extend to understanding the implications of her last sentence.  But he felt mortified nonetheless. He knew that no matter how long he stayed at CH or in Berlin, he would only be at best a “guest worker”.

 

He redoubled his efforts to perform well. The satisfaction accruing from being counted as a good professional was considerable. And yet, try as hard as he could, he did not feel comfortable in Germany. At least once a week, a colleague would observe to him, “In this culture, we are like this…” He had reason to believe that he was being paid half of what Germans at his level were paid.  On one occasion, he had chatted briefly with an English expatriate staying in his apartment building. The Englishman had remarked in passing that the English would never work in Germany for such kind of salaries as Indians did.

 

Arun had a trump card regarding Indian culture. He was proud of Indian family values. He thought he would draw attention to these family values when a suitable occasion presented itself. The occasion came soon enough. Heavy rains had caused floods in Kerala. The havoc was being reported on German TV. While this was happening, he had to work with three other Germans on a small part of a project. One day, the four co-workers had to meet briefly. At the end of the meeting, the three Germans commiserated the damage wrecked by the monsoons in Kerala. “You have to watch out that there will be no epidemic in India now. There is a problem with general sanitation in Kerala.”

 

“Family values are everything in India,” opined Arun. “That will enable Keralites to go through this tragedy”. “Well, maybe your problem is that you have too many families. In Germany, the population rate is going down,” responded one of the Germans. Arun was speechless. He also felt conscious of being a foreigner and was not sure whether issuing a rejoinder would be appropriate.

 

When Arun went home, he was greeted by a suddenly animated Chandiramathi. “I have bought a plane ticket to India for the 31st of this month, for the baby and me,” she said. “I suggest that you also return with us. Alternatively, you can return after your eight-month contract has been completed. But if you come back now, my father can loan you the money to start your own IT firm.” Arun stared at his wife in disbelief. She had never asserted herself in this manner before. Germany had done her some good, he thought, admiring her chutzpah. He pondered for a minute. If he left precipitously, CH would likely complain to his employer in Bangalore. His employer might consider terminating his services. He could, of course, present what transpired at CH, Berlin from his own perspective. He could do this in writing, an approach highly recommended by Germans. And then, he could resign and start his own firm.

Dr. Nina Jacob is currently Professor, OB & HRM, at the IFIM Business School, Bangalore, and also the chairperson of the VB Padode Centre for Sustainability.

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